Examining the Second Amendment Using Plain Writing and Historical Context

This post is part of our series on the Bill of RightsWe’re highlighting primary sources from our student workbook Putting the Bill of Rights to the Test, that helps students explore core concepts found within the Bill of Rights, and how they’ve impacted American history. This year marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The National Archives is commemorating the occasion with exhibits, educational resources, and national conversations that examine the amendment process and struggles for rights in the United States.

Gen. Storms, N.Y. State Militia
Gen. Storms, N.Y. State Militia, from Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes in the Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. National Archives Identifier 528370

Teachers often use hot topics in the forefront of today’s news to motivate student learning and exploration. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, because of its controversial nature and ability to polarize large groups in today’s news, might be used effectively as motivation to teach topics such as the importance of plain writing, understanding historical context, and using fundamental research skills in primary sources.

One classroom approach might begin with a class discussion using two primary sources that help illustrate how long the modern controversy surrounding the 2nd Amendment has been going on.

After comparing these documents, display for students the text of the 2nd Amendment: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Ask students to answer: Do we really know the exact meaning of the 2nd amendment? Why or why not? (Note: Many court battles have been fought and won on both sides of the gun-control controversy and the arguments on both sides rage on. See the Cornell Legal Information Institute’s analysis, including some specific court cases.)

Illustrating the Importance of Plain Writing

Instruct students to rewrite the amendment so it is clearer and more applicable to their lives in modern society. Save this to compare to later examples. You might want to discuss the concept of preconceived ideas and personal bias in writing at this time as well.

Then ask: Why does the amendment begin with the concept of a “militia?” What is a militia?

A quick look at a dictionary will reveal something like (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/):

A group of people who are not part of the armed forces of a country but are trained like soldiers.

  1. a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
  2. a body of citizens organized for military service
  3. The whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to military service

Have students read and compare the following two primary sources: what later became the Kansas State Constitution (1859) and New York’s proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1788). Point out the wording about the right to bear arms and the need for a militia.

See section 4 of the Kansas Territory Wyandotte Constitution:

The people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security, but standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and shall not be tolerated, and the military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.

Wyandotte Constitution
Wyandotte Constitution (Kansas Territory), 7/29/1859, available at http://docsteach.org/documents/6721634/detail

See page 3 of New York’s Ratification of the Constitution with Proposed Amendments:

That the People have the right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated Militia, including the body of the People capable of bearing arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a Free State; that the Militia should not be subject to martial law, except in times of War, Rebellion, and Insurrection.

That standing Armies in time of peace are dangerous to Liberty, and ought not to be kept up, except in Cases of necessity; and that at all times the Military should be under strict subordination to the civil Power.

New York’s Ratification of the Constitution with Proposed Amendments (page 3)
New York’s Ratification of the Constitution with Proposed Amendments (page 3), 1788, available at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24278854

Placing Primary Sources in Historical Context

Share with students text from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

Direct them to the Founders Online, a National Archives website of correspondence between George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison before, during, and after the creation of the Bill of Rights.

Share some relevant examples of results for searches on “militia,” “standing army,” and other terms gathered from the example documents. (Explain that a “standing Army” is nearly the opposite of a “militia;” it is a professional military, active in peacetime as well as during time of war, with little or no civilian control.)

John Adams’ “Essay on Man’s Lust for Power” (29 August 1763) with Author’s Comment in 1807:

Power is a Thing of infinite Danger and Delicacy, and was never yet confided to any Man or any Body of Men without turning their Heads.—Was there ever, in any Nation or Country, since the fall, a standing Army that was not carefully watched and contrould by the State so as to keep them impotent, that did not, ravish, plunder, Massacre and ruin, and at last inextricably inslave the People…

Letter to Benjamin Franklin from the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 6 November 1770

… So wretched is the State of this Province, not only to be subjected to absolute Instructions given to the Governor to be the Rule of his Administration, whereby some of the most essential Clauses of our Charter vesting in him Powers to be exercised for the Good of the People are totally rescinded, which is in reality a State of Despotism; but also to a Standing Army, which being uncontrouled by any Authority in the Province, must soon tear up the very Foundation of civil Government.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Secretary of State, during the Constitutional Convention, 20 Dec 1787

…I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land and not by the law of Nations…

Ask students to search Founders Online themselves for more evidence of colonial discussions centered on the militia, standing armies, and the right to bear arms written in the mid to late 1700s. Discuss how day-to-day life differed in 1787 from today. Have them decide what the reasons might be for having the right to keep and bear arms in that time period. After gathering more evidence, ask them to rewrite the 2nd Amendment again in their own words as if they were living in 1787 and then compare the three versions:

  • the actual 2nd Amendment,
  • their first rewritten modern version, and
  • their rewritten version from the viewpoint of a citizen in 1787.

2 thoughts on “Examining the Second Amendment Using Plain Writing and Historical Context

  1. I think there are seven draft versions of the second amendment. This page should link to those drafts.

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